Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Golan - a High Hurdle to Peace Israeli Settlement Policy on the Heights Is on a Collision Course with Syrian Insistence on Return of Territory

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Golan - a High Hurdle to Peace Israeli Settlement Policy on the Heights Is on a Collision Course with Syrian Insistence on Return of Territory

Article excerpt

AFTER years as the stepchild of Arab-Israeli diplomacy, the Golan Heights today is on top of the negotiating agenda. But as US Secretary of State James Baker struggles to coax Syria and Israel to the bargaining table, he must contend with Israel's ongoing program of settlement in the disputed region.

Until 1977, the Golan Heights, together with East Jerusalem, was a primary focus of settlement efforts by the ruling Labor coalition and its affiliated kibbutz settlement organizations.

The first Israeli settlement in occupied territory - Merom Golan - was established in the Golan Heights on July 15, 1967, little more than one month after the end of the June 1967 war. It was the first of four settlements established before 1968, all of which were sponsored by the then ruling Labor Party coalition.

Like the Jordan Valley, the Golan had been depopulated by the 1967 war. Only four Druze villages with 10,000 inhabitants in the region's northeast corner remained from a prewar population of 100,000.

Israelis across the political spectrum acknowledged the Golan's geostrategic value. It provided strategic depth for Israel's interior as well as securing a direct route to Damascus, barely 50 miles distant over open terrain.

In the Golan, as elsewhere, military security according to Israel's model required civilian Jewish settlement. A November 1967 proposal called for the creation of 20 agricultural villages in the northern and southern sectors of the Golan with a population of 7,000 by 1982. A more grandiose plan, published in 1969, projected a Jewish population of 45,000 to 50,000 within 10 years.

By 1969, 11 outposts, all cooperative settlements associated with factions in the ruling Labor coalition, had been established with a population of 300.

Within the ranks of Israel's political establishment, doubts about the wisdom of "creating facts" in the Golan were overcome by the desire not to be left out of the postwar pioneering era. In the early 1970s, the left-wing Mapam Party voted to join the settlement drive in the Golan Heights.

"The vast majority of the party members," noted the party's daily, Al Hamishmar, "are not prepared to relinquish their part in settling the Golan." Syria's attack in October 1973 forced the immediate and total evacuation of all Golan settlements, whose populations had increased to almost 2,000. Despite this experience, settlements continued to be seen as central elements of Israeli security on the Golan. Even as the war raged, the Golan's politically well-connected settlement movement won a government commitment to double the plateau's settler population within a year, establish an urban center, colonize the central Golan region, and construct a regional defense system based upon civilian settlements.

On his first visit as prime minister to the Golan Heights in 1974, Yitzhak Rabin proclaimed, "Israeli governments have not established permanent settlements in the Golan Heights in order to evacuate them or to let them exist in a non-Jewish state. If anyone has any doubts about that he should stop worrying."

When Labor was ousted in 1977, it bequeathed to the Likud a settlement system in the Golan second only to that in annexed East Jerusalem. By 1979 the momentum established by Labor had produced 28 settlements with a population of 4,300.

The Likud's government's "Fundamental Guidelines" of 1977 promised that "Israel will not descend from the Golan Heights, nor will it remove any (Jewish) settlement established there. It is the government that will decide on the appropriate timing for the imposition of Israeli law, jurisdiction, and administration on the Golan Heights. …

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